Lakeland Linder International Airport, the largest airport in Polk County, provides an economic impact of nearly $575 million a year, according to a study released in March 2019.

But with dynamic leadership, a supportive City Commission and continued infrastructure improvements, the airport is continuing to grow, increasing that impact even further.

In May 2019, airport Executive Director Gene Conrad announced that Amazon Air signed a lease with the City of Lakeland and will be investing about $100 million in the airport, building 283,000 square feet of facilities on 47 acres to service air cargo operations. When the company begins operations in June 2020, it will employ an anticipated 800 to 1,000 people, flying in and out of the airport approximately eight to 10 times per day.

Amazon is moving its operations at Tampa International Airport to Lakeland Linder, which sits on 1,730 acres on the western side of the city.

“This is a total game-changer for the airport as the deal puts us on very sound financial footing and allows us to bring more jobs to our region as we continue to invest in our airport,” Conrad said. He estimates Amazon’s presence will boost the economic impact of the airport to more than $1 billion.

The airport is working on the final stages of its master plan, which includes runway changes; expanding parking, hangars and terminals; relocating fixed-base operations and more. It’s delayed its MRO (Maintenance and Repair Overhaul) hangar development, diverting some of the $4.6 million Florida Job Growth Grant from that project to Amazon site development and Instrument Landing System (ILS) upgrades, Conrad said.

Airport Activity

The airport has been home to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Hunters since May 2017, and Draken International, which provides adversarial air training to militaries around the globe, since 2011. Five flight schools also operate at the airport: Lakeland Aero Club, International Aero Academy, Kingsky Flight Academy, Wild Air Aviation and Polk State College/Sunrise Aviation. High school and college students use a grass field to earn their certification, which helped double the number of operations (take-offs and landings) from 64,000 in 2010 to 130,000 now.

Conrad wants to be a good neighbor, and he’s well aware of the sound jets flying overhead make. The air traffic control tower — staffed by Robinson Aviation — operates daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., although Lakeland Linder will pay overtime if NOAA needs its planes to fly in and out. Its P3s and G4s — which fly over the top of a storm at 45,000 feet — generally fly in and out twice — to start and end 12-hour shifts. The U.S. Air force also flies C130s out of the airport. Draken flies its planes between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., avoiding night hours.

An Economic Driver

Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado said Conrad and his team have turned Lakeland Linder into a true economic driver. “Not just in the fact that we are seeing new businesses at the facility, which is assisting the airport to maintain financial solvency, but the fact that these businesses bring hundreds of new jobs into our community, which will offer employment in a variety of fields — from white-collar positions to needed trade opportunities. Jobs assist in the overall growth of the community and the continued vibrancy of Lakeland.”

So what’s the future look like? Conrad jokes that he’s got enough to keep him busy right now; he also serves as head of the Central Florida Development Council’s Aviation Committee. But Delgado knows Conrad, and the city, will continue to advance the airport as an economic driver.

“Since a cargo operation is now being implemented, I hope we will continue to concentrate on options for commercial airline development and new aviation-related business to supplement our major clients,” Delgado said. Volaire Aviation Consulting has been working to recruit a commercial airline company to Lakeland, and American Airlines has expressed interest in possibly starting service from Lakeland to Charlotte, N.C.

“Personally, I would like the airport to grow wisely, understanding the area of the city it resides in is also growing and developing into a major employment hub for the community.”